Abortion and Social Justice at Yale

A pro-life student group at Yale University has been refused membership in a “social justice” organization.  Why?  Because, in the words of one student leader, “The pro-life, anti-choice agenda stands in the way of gender equity, and thus in the way of social justice.”

The controversy raises difficult questions: Is conservative religion still seen as a legitimate force for good?  For “social justice?”  Or has conservatism become irredeemably trapped by accusations of bigotry?  At least in the effete environs of Yale, it seems pro-life thinking has been stripped of its moral legitimacy.

Well-dressed Activists

Well-dressed Activists

The student group, Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), had been a provisional member of Dwight Hall, an umbrella group of student social-justice clubs.  Membership in Dwight Hall would have given CLAY access to meeting rooms and a sense of campus legitimacy.

Is pro-life a “social justice” cause?  Former CLAY president Michael Gerken thinks it is.  As he explained in the pages of First Things, CLAY members

realized that abortion has never been solely a matter of a baby’s life and liberty. It’s about the desperation and hopelessness of the mother that walked into the clinic. It’s about the grandfather who will never put that little girl in his lap. It’s about the classmates who will never sit next to her, and the boy who will never work up the courage to write her that awkward poem. It’s even about that friend who she would drift away from over the years, the successful sister who would make her insecure, and the God she’d curse when she lost her job and then her mortgage. The biggest lie in all this is that the choice to end (or to save) a life is a solitary one.

Of course, Yale will always have a special place in the history of conservatism and education.  It was William F. Buckley’s precocious expose of the godless atmosphere on campus that launched his career, and in many ways signaled the start of the modern conservative movement.

And college campuses have become leading forums to debate whether or not conservative religious ideas are legitimate traditions or vestiges of bigotry.  ILYBYGTH readers may remember a case at Tufts University a while back.  In that case, the evangelical student group Intervarsity was stripped of its official student-group status.  Other student groups complained that the prominent evangelical group represented an inherently bigoted worldview, one that did not recognize the full equality of homosexual students.

The current controversy at Yale represents a similar conundrum.  Do conservative religious groups automatically lose the right to participate in campus life?  Is it inherently bigoted to fight against abortion or gay marriage?  Perhaps most important, who gets to define “social justice?”



Liberty and Intellectual Diversity

Can the faculty at a fundamentalist university embody a true intellectual diversity?  In some senses, of course they can.  Depending on the school, faculty at conservative Protestant schools may disagree vehemently on important issues such as the age of the earth, the best tax system, or the proper way to structure an election.  But fundamentalist schools still face a narrower list of potential faculty members than do less strictly defined colleges.  At many conservative schools, prospective faculty members must agree to an institutional creed.  This has the desired effect of cutting out a wide range of dissenting intellectual perspectives.

Journalist Michael McDonald brought up these issues of perennial interest this morning in a Bloomberg.com article about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

McDonald’s main interest was in the financial aspect and prospect of Liberty’s enormous and lucrative on-line branch.  As McDonald notes, the deeply conservative evangelical Protestant school is now the largest private non-profit university in the country.  For a school dedicated to a sternly fundamentalist theology, that is a remarkable achievement.

In his research for the article, Mr. McDonald asked me if I thought Liberty’s success could mean that it will become a model for mainstream universities.  As McDonald quoted in his piece,

“This dream of turning it into Notre Dame won’t work for Liberty,” said Adam Laats, an assistant professor in education and history at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. “Liberty University faculty will always be more constrained in the breadth of intellectual diversity they can welcome.”

It’s true: most colleges and universities do not require faculty to sign a strict creed.  If Notre Dame could only hire Catholics, or if my alma mater Northwestern University could only hire Methodists, they might be in a similar situation.

But Liberty’s potential faculty will have to agree with the school’s strict evangelical Protestantism, and this will always set it apart from more pluralistic colleges.

Of course, I’m not the first person to note this, by any means.  Leading evangelical historians such as Mark Noll and George Marsden have long argued that evangelical institutions differ in important ways from pluralist ones, due largely to this tradition of faculty and institutional creeds.

But already I have heard some intelligent objections.  Dan Richardson contacted me to object to my premise in the Bloomberg article.  As Mr. Richardson wrote,

“I read your comments with interest on Bloomberg concerning Liberty University. As a graduate myself of the Virginia Public University system, I found essentially zero tolerance or professors willing to even consider or give any credence/discussion to any philosophy other than relativistic, humanistic,  at best agnostic culture on campus today. There are countless examples of ‘conservative’ speakers, hassled, disinvited, shouted down at many public universities. If you truly care about the breadth of intellectual diversity, start with thyself.”

Richardson makes an important point.  Simply because the faculty of fundamentalist colleges lack some of the inherent intellectual diversity of pluralist schools, this does not mean that pluralist schools do a perfect job of encouraging true diversity themselves.

As historian Jonathan Zimmerman has asked, what would it take to get real intellectual diversity on pluralist campuses?  Do we need an affirmative action program for conservative intellectual faculty?

Sometimes the creeds in place at pluralist universities are implicit.  Sometimes they are more aggressively spelled out.  The recent flap over the funding of a Christian student group at Tufts University, for example, demonstrates the way pluralist universities’ dedication to pluralism often has confounding and unpredictable results.

Nevertheless, I stand by my statement in Mr. McDonald’s article.  Mainstream universities will have different challenges from Liberty University when it comes to welcoming a variety of intellectual perspectives.  Liberty’s dramatic financial success with on-line education does not change that.

Do Diverse Campuses Need More Christ?

Jonathan Zimmerman recently called for an affirmative action program for conservative college professors.  But what about for conservative students?  Do diverse campuses need to welcome groups with conservative, discriminatory policies?

A Christianity Today piece by Greg Jao, National Field Director for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, argues that true diversity, true learning, will only take place once universities welcome a “principled pluralism” to their campuses.  This means welcoming not only groups from a variety of racial or ethnic backgrounds, but also Christian groups like Intervarsity.  Campuses must remain, in Jao’s words, “communities with conflicting narratives and ideologies.”

Jao’s argument, like the broader conflict over the presence of conservative religious groups on college campuses, highlights the tension between tolerance and pluralism, between inclusiveness and exclusiveness.

Jao’s comments come largely in response to a continuing controversy over Intervarsity’s presence at Tufts University.

A couple of months ago, Tufts decided to “de-recognize” Intervarsity.  That meant the group would no longer receive university funding.  It could no longer use the Tufts name.  The reason for the decision was Intervarsity’s restriction on its leadership.  Only those who subscribe to the group’s Bible-based Christian theology could become leaders.  University policy at Tufts, as at many schools, requires student groups to welcome all comers, regardless of race, sexuality, religion, or other factors.

As the controversy wends its way through a cycle of appeals and counterappeals, activists on both sides have framed their position as the best chance for schools to achieve a healthily diverse campus.

One student argued in the pages of Tufts’ student newspaper that the Intervarsity group must be de-funded in order to combat bigotry.  As this student argued in September,

“Since when was freedom of religion a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card that excused bigotry? Since when was an organization like IVCF given the permission to speak for evangelical Christians such as myself? . . .  it is long past time to tolerate – that word the intolerant hate so much – self-righteous pontificating that says: ‘Yes, we will use your buildings and your money, and we will not treat you as an equal. Because we are religious.’”

Greg Jao’s more recent argument turns this on its head.  Jao insists, “A truly inclusive university should reject anti-discrimination policies which flatten differences and reduce true diversity.”

So which is it?  Must universities tolerate groups that discriminate?  Or, since many groups discriminate—such as an all-male a capella group or an all-engineering student fraternity—are only certain types of discrimination acceptable?  If so, who makes such decisions and on what grounds?